Beginning with the Spanish colonization of Baja Arizona in the late 17th century, pomegranates were ubiquitous orchard and backyard trees; but as home gardens with fruit trees fell out of fashion in recent decades, Baja Arizona’s heirloom pomegranates all but disappeared, dying off with the last of the elderly gardeners who had tended to them. Fortunately, pomegranates are now making a comeback. This wave of newfound interest in planting pomegranates in Baja Arizona landscapes has many causes, including the rising movement to localize food production and rescue heirloom desert-adapted crop varieties; an increasing sensitivity toward historical place-based food traditions; the benefits of growing trees to counter the heat island effect, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and create habitat for birds and insects; and the need to use scarce water resources efficiently.
Do you want to wake up a sleeping beauty? Give that long-neglected pomegranate tree a little TLC. Unlike other nonnative Old World fruit trees, even when pomegranates are overlooked for years, they can be resuscitated. With weekly deep irrigation during hot periods, pruning of dead wood and suckers in winter, and occasional top-dressing with compost and mulch, you will soon see that lackluster bush transform into a luxuriant tree laden with delicious pomegranates. Indeed, pomegranates are among the most resilient and high-yielding fruit trees in Baja Arizona.
An ancient fruit whose domestication dates back to the dawn of civilization, there are many varieties, ranging from those with purple skin and tart red hard-seeded arils (or kernels) to those with golden skin and sweet white soft-seeded arils like many of our local desert-adapted heirlooms. Through efforts such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project, local cultivars are experiencing a resurgence, gaining notoriety as Sonoran White Pomegranates. Many local specimens are believed to be clones of the trees first introduced into this region during the 18th century by European missionaries.
Arizona and California are the best regions for cultivating pomegranates in the United States. Pomegranates tolerate our heat, drought, alkaline soils, and moderate frosts. In 2012, Ursula Schuch and Glenn Wright of the University of Arizona Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension established a trial to test 32 varieties of pomegranates in three locations—Yuma, Tucson, and Bowie—to assess their viability for commercial fruit-bearing and landscaping. Most of the varieties came from the University of California at Davis germplasm repository, but they also included three of the Kino Heritage Fruit Tree cultivars: the Josefina (named after Tucson florist Josefina Lizárraga), the Sosa Carrillo (named after the historical museum home in downtown Tucson), and the Ruby (named after the Arizona ghost town). In 2014, in Tucson, the Josefina variety produced the third largest yield, nine kilograms from four trees. In Yuma, the Sosa Carrillo produced the second largest yield, and in Bowie the Sosa Carrillo tied with the Azadi cultivar in producing the most fruit. The color of the juice from the fruit grown in Bowie—at an elevation of 3,700 feet—was the darkest red, whereas the fruit from Yuma—at an elevation of 164 feet—was lightest in color, which indicates that the light-colored arils of the Sonoran Whites may be a trait resulting from adaptation to extreme heat. The preliminary results of this study, which show that the heirloom cultivars produce superior yields and quality, provide additional scientific validation of the vernacular wisdom behind endeavors to rescue and revive our precious heirloom crop varieties.
Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with pomegranates to ensure their safe passage into the afterlife. In China, pomegranates symbolize fertility. They represent righteousness in Jewish tradition, which equates the number of arils in each fruit to the number of commandments in the Torah. Indeed, biblical scholars now believe a pomegranate to be the true fruit of temptation. In the Qur’an pomegranates are depicted in the gardens of paradise, and Muslim children are taught not to let even one pomegranate aril fall to the ground since they represent Mohammed’s tears. In Hinduism, pomegranates symbolize fertility and prosperity.
Some of this fruit’s legendary status arises from their unique beauty, from the trees’ bright green foliage and vivid red flowers to the characteristic crowned peaks and neatly clustered arils of the fruits. In Baja Arizona, pomegranates are among the first trees to leaf out in the earliest days of spring, and in the fall, their bright yellow autumnal leaves afford the most brilliant splashes of color in any garden.
It provides us with an opportunity to savor variety, connect with our history, and refine our palates, leading us to the discovery of ancient tastes, new recipes, and timeless beauty.
Our Sonoran White Pomegranates begin ripening in July and stay ripe on the tree through September. The arils often become sweeter and take on pinker hues towards the end of the harvest season. They store very well, and can be strung up and hung in the kitchen. Even though the outer husks harden and dry, the arils inside retain their juiciness for weeks. Alternatively, they can be stored for up to two months in the refrigerator, though many people prefer to remove the arils and freeze them.
Pomegranate juice is now very popular, but it has long been the essential ingredient of the grenadine syrup used in cocktails. In Middle Eastern cuisine it is added to sauces and soups. In Indian and Pakistani cooking the seeds of some varieties are used as a spice. Dehydrated arils are put in chutneys, curries, trail mixes, and dessert toppings. Pomegranates are ideal in garnishes, syrups or salad dressings, for marinating meats, for spreads and dips, and in glazes and relishes.
In Mexico, the most typical pomegranate dish is chiles en nogada—stuffed chilies topped with a white sauce, red pomegranate arils, and green parsley to represent the three colors of the flag. When folk musician Bobby Benton tasted one of Mission Garden’s Sonoran White Pomegranates in Tucson, he reminisced about his mother’s old tree on the west side of town, and the white pomegranate arils she’d serve inside Jello, as a special treat. Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace board member Tomás Castillo used the Sonoran Whites to brew Pomegranate Beer, and volunteers Gene and Daniel Einfrank are making Mission Garden’s premier Pomegranate Wine. At my house, our favorite way of eating pomegranates is simply as fresh fruit. We like to pluck the arils out one at a time and slowly savor them with after-dinner conversation.
The Sonoran White Pomegranate epitomizes the exquisite treasure of biodiversity, the essence of what our culture has created to nourish us over the millennia, from the cities of Jericho and Carthage to Baghdad and Ashgabat, and from the Garden of Eden to the orchards of Baja Arizona. It provides us with an opportunity to savor variety, connect with our history, and refine our palates, leading us to the discovery of ancient tastes, new recipes, and timeless beauty.
To celebrate the diversity, history, and beauty of pomegranates, Tucson’s Mission Garden will host Baja Arizona’s Second Annual Festival of Pomegranates on Sept. 24, 2016. The festival will include a pomegranate tasting, where participants will get a chance to see, touch, and taste some of the fine heirloom pomegranate varieties from this region, and compare their distinct flavors, colors, and textures to other exotic varieties. ✜
For more information, call 520.777.9270 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dena Cowan is responsible for community outreach for Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace Mission Garden and the curator of an exhibition to be presented at Tucson Meet Yourself narrating the food history that led Tucson to become a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.